On New Year’s Eve, I attended LA Fitness gym for my first session with a personal trainer. Since I was well into the throes of a Christmas time warp, where it’s easy to forget what day it is, I was caught off guard when my trainer asked if I had plans for later that night.
With a puzzled look, I responded in a somewhat clueless manner, “Now, why would I have plans for later tonight?” After my new trainer gave the “where have you been” stare at me, it finally occurred to me that it was December 31! And if I needed more proof of the day, the booming of fireworks for the remainder of the night all but confirmed that it was New Year's Eve.
Unlike several of the people in the gym that day, I wasn’t there to consciously work on a New Years Resolution.
Instead, I was there because I needed to lower my A1C. After nearly 14 years of being on Immunosuppressant medications to keep my transplanted kidney from rejecting, one of the side effects that I’m struggling with is becoming susceptible to developing Type 2 Diabetes.
For the past six months, I've worked hard at adapting my diet (going low carbs by eliminating rice, bread, potatoes, and so on) and exercising rigorously. No matter how hard I tried to lower my A1C, I couldn’t move the needle. And since I’m a Methodist, which means among other things, that I’m often committed to my established methods, I became frustrated with my lack of results.
More specifically, my method of trying to go at it alone was unraveling at the seams. Something had to give. For a while, I had lost weight following my approach, but I hit a wall and couldn't lose any more weight. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t losing weight even though I was exercising 30-40 minutes per day. I needed help to rethink this problem. I needed to adapt.
For many of us, adapting means change and change might as well be a four-letter word because it strikes most of us as something ugly and profane. No one likes to change. Homeostasis — the state of equilibrium and balance when nothing is changing, is our default programming. As we learned in Biology class, homeostasis, when it relates to maintaining our body temperature and blood pressure, is a good thing.
But when homeostasis influences our outlook and keeps us committed to established methods that are outdated, it becomes the enemy of growth and change. And whether we know it or not, New Year’s and January are both about beginnings, and we can’t begin something new until we end something old. Beginning and Endings are the stuff of change and change is ultimately about loss: loss of identity, loss of purpose, loss of prestige, and loss of meaning.
If change represents loss and it’s especially difficult people, then it’s no wonder that the resistance to change is so prevalent in our churches. The sobering truth is this: denying the need to and resisting to modify and adapt is probably the single biggest reason that we’re in decline. Gone are the days when a church could swing open its doors, and people would come. Change is now the new normal for a while.
The truth is painful for many of us to hear, but the church is no longer the center of things for our culture. Like the 4.4 Earthquake that shook Tennessee and parts of Georgia on December 12, there have been metaphorical "seismic shifts” that have moved the church from the center of culture to the fringes, and we're now on the outside of culture looking in.
Churches can’t keep doing things the way they’ve always done them. But that doesn’t mean that the fix is looking for Millennials to fill the pews or for generous donors to help us make up our financial shortfalls. There's no quick fix to the challenges we are facing. It will take a shift away from the way we do church to being the church and living out our faith in our culture and context.
It will mean a rethinking thing and listening to people outside of the church walls. Instead of continuing with doing the things the way we've always done them, we will have to grieve that our ideas no longer produce the results they once did. Attendance patterns have changed, communities surrounding our churches have changed, and our children, grandchildren and their peers live in a different world that we did.
Grieving isn't easy, and it causes us to act out at a time when we're caught off guard from the fierce emotions. And while its both exciting and scary stuff, learning from people outside the congregation is a shift into a new season of church life where we're not as tied to leadership lists, old structures, and "church as usual."
In this new season, each of us must grieve losing our nostalgic thinking of how things used to be. Rather than gripe over screens in the sanctuary, music styles, not having enough representation from younger generations in our worship services, perhaps we learn to engage with the very age that we've labeled Millennial, Gen X and Gen Y by taking a genuine interest in their lives.
Adapting will require congregations to discern its reality (i.e., what are the hopes and dreams of the community), take risks, acquire new learning, and grieve the loss of old ways. It also means community engagement to become more comfortable in the city and not wholly in the sanctuary to find creative ways to minister from the margins with people who are more at home with our changing environments.
Ok, so I never said that it was going to be easy. But, I'm convinced that engagement both with persons outside and inside the walls of the congregation is the only hope for a different narrative that doesn't have decline and plateau as its main protagonist.
As it turned out, I had unknowingly resolved to adapt on New Year's Eve. My resolution began with learning a new way of living in partnership with my trainer. It wasn’t to gain six-pack abs, or 18-inch biceps, or a bulging chest. Instead, it was getting help from people outside of my normal sphere of influence with lowering my A1C.
Stepping out of my comfort zone with a trainer will help create a new story for me, one that focuses on partnering with others to reduce my Body Mass Index (BMI). What is that your church is trying to go at it alone to change? Are you willing to lose your "methods" and learn how to adapt to others outside the church?
On the Journey,
Technology and Digital Ministry